Sun | Mar 7, 2021

Nigel Clarke | Setting records straight on Third Supplementary Estimates

Published:Friday | January 22, 2021 | 12:05 AMNigel Clarke/Guest Columnist

On Wednesday, January 20, 2021, The Gleaner published an article, ‘COVID INJECTION – Coronavirus fight boosted, fire trucks scratched as Budget slashed by $3.5 billion’, which unfortunately contains inaccuracies concerning the Third Supplementary Estimates, which were tabled in Parliament on Tuesday, January 19, 2021.

A follow-up article, ‘Clarke explains budget shifts’, was published in The Gleaner on Thursday, January 21, which clarifies, in brief, the inaccuracies reported in the first article. In the interest of providing transparent and accurate information to Jamaicans, it is necessary for me to correct those inaccuracies and to further clarify any misunderstandings on which they were based.

First, the use of the word ‘scratched’ in the printed headline conveys the impression that the Government will no longer be acquiring the fire trucks. This is most incorrect and unfortunate. To be unequivocally clear, the Government’s commitment to acquire the fire trucks has not changed, and in fact, timing of the delivery of the fire trucks, previously programmed for the first quarter of FY 2021-22, remains unaffected. What is reflected in the Third Supplementary Estimates is a slight change in the payment schedule. Instead of making payments of $937m in March 2021 and US$7.9m in May 2021, after passage of the Third Supplementary Estimates, we will now make payments of approximately $90m by March 31 2021, $847m in the first week of April 2021, and the final tranche of US$7.1 million in May 2021. I repeat for emphasis that the delivery of the 30 fire trucks remains unchanged for the first quarter of 2021-22.

Second, the article states that the Third Supplementary Estimates of Expenditure reflects a “cut [in] spending on education to help bolster its capacity to fight the corona virus outbreak…”. The report further notes that the Ministry of Education, Youth and Information’s (MOEYI) budget cut was largely driven by a reduction in the allocation for “information and communications technology services”. It also states that the “the Government’s welfare platform, the Programme of Advancement Through Health and Education (PATH), has also been trimmed by nearly one-third.” These are very misleading statements as I will explain.

FAILING TO MAKE LINK

The article mentions the increase in the Ministry of Science, Energy and Technology’s (MSET) recurrent expenditure by $1.72 billion while failing to make the link between the reduction in the MOEYI budget and the increase in MSET’s recurrent expenditure despite the clear accompanying narrative in the Estimates of Expenditure.

At the exact places in the Estimates of Expenditure where you find the change of $1 billion and $809 million to the MOEYI allocations, it explicitly says “transferred to Head-56000 Ministry of Science, Energy and Technology (e-Learning Company Ltd) for the procurement of laptop computers for PATH Students”.

This is the Government of Jamaica’s (GOJ’s) programme where the MOEYI provides laptops for PATH students in specific grades. The MSET is the ministry with knowledge, experience and supplier relationships in the procurement of laptops in scale. In the service of efficiency and practicality, therefore, the MOEYI engaged the MSET to procure the laptops on its behalf.

In GOJ accounting, this collaboration across ministries, which serves the public interest is represented as a reduction in one area and an increase in another. If one is hasty and ignore the notes in the Estimates of Expenditure it may seem like a cut. But the activity is not cut. One way to look at it is that the MOEYI and MLSS are procuring the laptops from MSET as the expert in this area. The MOEYI and the MLSS and the public they serve continue to be the beneficiaries.

A third inaccuracy in the article states that the Forestry Department’s budget “is being slashed in half, moving from a budgeted $1.02 billion to $487.2 million” without acknowledging the accompanying narrative in the same Estimates of Expenditure which explained the entries in the Estimates of Expenditure. The Estimates’ remarks on Page 19046-1 clearly states that the reductions reflect “transfers to Head 21046 – Forestry Department consequent on the subject being assigned to the portfolio of the Ministry of Housing, Urban Renewal, Environment and Climate Change in September 2020”. These transfers reflect finalisation of subject assignments, which took place in September 2020 and are not “cuts”.

PROFOUND RESPONSIBILITY

I understand that resources are stretched everywhere, including in the media. However, the media have a profound responsibility to make every effort to report accurately. Failure to do so undermines the body politic and we all lose in the process. The Estimates of Expenditure (known as the ‘Yellow Book’), tabled in Parliament are an accounting of the proposed changes in budgetary expenditure.

The ‘Yellow Book’ is a notoriously dense document with lots of numbers expressed according to a specific format, which I am not at liberty to change. The accompanying notes in the margins aid in understanding of the numbers and form an integral part of the Estimates of Expenditure. Reporting that ignores these notes will most likely be inaccurate.

Nigel Clarke is minister of finance and the public service and member of parliament for St Andrew North Western. Send feedback to opedjamaica@gmail.com.